Companies either want their graduates to have certain skills, exposure to certain technologies or environments, or the ability to learn. An industrial placement helps with all three, and gives evidence of the right qualities and experience for you to use in your future graduate job search.

Many employers often use their work experience programmes as an extended interview process, as they understand the value of placements for students. It also helps employers to raise their profile with students at an earlier stage than would be the case if they were to recruit only graduates. Remember that you can bring them new insights and the ability to tackle problems and tasks that otherwise would not get done.

Placements count as valuable student work experience if you learn how to articulate the skills you are developing.

An overview of placements

The term placement, which is also known as work experience, is used to describe a planned period of temporary work that someone does to give them experience of the working world or of a particular industry. The experience may take the form of short term, long term (e.g. one year) or part time employment, and could be paid or unpaid. Work placements are different from volunteering because the main focus is the development of working skills, not helping a charitable cause.

A work placement can be a period of practical and professional work which can be undertaken as part of your course at university. This can be arranged through your university with an employer or by yourself, and is for an agreed period of time.

If the work experience is undertaken as part of your degree it is often referred to as a sandwich placement. A full-time sandwich degree is taken over four years where the third year of the programme consists of an industrial training placement which provides an opportunity for students to spend a year working in industry, commerce or for professional/regulatory bodies. Normally they tend to be for business, IT, engineering, languages and sciences students. The decision about following a sandwich programme can be made prior to entry to university, however, in practice most students make their final choice during the second year of their degree.

Some employers offer shorter sandwich placements of four to six months and also vacation placements, usually involving two or three months work over the easter or summer, so, if you see the word "placement" used in a job advert, you should check exactly what the employer means by this!

Essentially a placement means different things to different people but in essence it is any form of work that you before you start your career. Even work experience you get as part of your career after graduation can be counted as work experience. The most important thing to remember is that all placements give you some experience.

The benefits of a placement

An extended period of relevant work during or after your degree has a number of advantages, such as:

  • significantly improves your graduate CV, gain a good reference from your employer and thus enhance your future employment prospects;
  • the possibility of an offer of permanent employment by the organisation, and/or assistance with your final year of study;
  • being able to apply the theory and practice gained during your academic studies in a real-life working context, and to appreciate the relevance of your degree;
  • time to learn organisational, management and personal skills, and develop an awareness of the workplace culture;
  • the understanding gained during a year in a professional environment can be important in project work and study, and assist in improving final year results;
  • the obvious financial benefits of earning a salary for an extended period of time.

If the placement is a formal part of your degree then you will be required to keep a log of your training and work experience during the year and to produce a report at the end of the year. These can be used as a basis for future graduate job applications. They will also help you to analyse the skills you have developed through your placement.

It doesn't matter if it is a week or a year, a work placement can help you to make decisions about your future career - to discover what you like and dislike about the work, where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what possibilities there are for long-term career development in that field of work. Taking time to reflect on what you have seen and done during your placement, and how you have developed as a result, is an important part of learning through your work experience.

How to make the most of a placement

A placement is a step into the professional world. Your future employer is not only looking for excellent academic achievement, they also want well-rounded employees who have some experience of the 'real world'. A placement provides you with the perfect platform to achieve this. However, after you have secured your place how do you ensure you benefit from the experience so you can demonstrate your skills and abilities to potential future employers?

  • Set realistic personal goals. While some placements are very structured, others are not, so you need to spend some time before you start the placement setting goals that you want to accomplish. Maybe it's deciding on what area within marketing that you want to specialise, or learning new skills, or building your network. Whatever your goals, you will feel a greater sense of accomplishment once you achieve them.
  • Have regular meetings with your supervisor(s). You may get a supervisor who never schedules meetings with you or travels quite a bit, so you have to make sure to have regular meetings where you can share experiences and lessons learned - both good and bad - as well as give progress reports.
  • Tackle all tasks with enthusiasm and a positive attitude. In just about every company, a new recruit is going to have to "pay his or her dues." You will undoubtedly be given some menial work to do, such as photocopying, but the key is to complete all your work assignments with the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism.
  • Avoid negativity. The quickest way to ruin a good placement is being negative. So, avoid complaining, being rude, disrespecting colleagues, arriving late, leaving early, being small-minded, missing deadlines, appearing arrogant, wearing improper attire, acting unprofessionally, appearing inflexible, and taking part in office politics.
  • Never shun a chance to learn more. Take every opportunity presented to you to attend company or industry meetings, conferences, and events; participate in training workshops; and read all company materials.
  • Get as much exposure as possible. Some of the best placements rotate you among departments and supervisors, but if yours doesn't, don't let that stop you from tackling new tasks, meeting people outside your department, and attending company social events. The more you are exposed to new ideas and new people, the more you'll learn.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions. Always remember that a placement is a learning experience for you. While the employer expects to get a certain level of work from you, you are not expected to know everything. Seek advice and raise questions whenever you encounter something that is not familiar to you. Be open-minded about new ideas and procedures - remember that you don't know everything!
  • Take the initiative. Employers encourage employees to tackle tough problems and to think "outside the box" in order to find solutions. Just make sure you work with your supervisor(s) so you don't overstep your authority - and make sure you share the spoils with them.
  • Find a good mentor. A mentor is someone at a higher level in the organisation that looks out for you and makes sure you are learning what you need to know and accomplishing what you need to do. A mentor can also shield you from office politics and be a good sounding board for you to discuss ideas, ask questions, etc.
  • Network. One of the key tools of job-hunting is utilising your network to find your next career step, whether another internship or a job upon graduation (and beyond). Build professional relationships with your supervisor(s) and other managers in the organisation. These people are also a good source for getting other job-hunting advice and tips from their years of experience.
  • Leave with tangible accomplishments. One of your goals with any placement is leaving it with some tangible results - both for your CV and your portfolio (if you use one). Maybe you developed a brochure, computerised an inventory system, organised a sales conference, met with clients, tracked industry trends, etc.
  • Enjoy yourself. Most placements are great experiences, so make sure you have some fun while you're working and learning.

Before you apply for a placement there are some practical considerations you should consider. As not all work placements are paid what's the minimum you need to survive? How you will get it? Find out whether you chosen company will cover any basic expenses like travel. Make sure the experience you'll gain is worth the costs you'll have. If you have other commitments, like you're still studying, think about how much time you can spare without it affecting your study. Are you happy to do a placement away from your hometown? If so, how will you find somewhere to stay? It's always worth asking the company you'll be working for about this too as some companies have subsidised accommodation.

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